Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

The house, or mansion, has set in the country long enough that it seems to have always been there.  It was built by a tycoon for his wife who died a mysterious death there.  Over the years, it has been various things; a refuge for those fleeing scandal, an artists' colony, and a treasure to be guarded.

In The Hundred Year House, Rebecca Makkai peels back the layers of history that surround the house, excavating the secrets and connections that make up it's life.  She starts with it's most recent history, where the wealthy owner currently in residence is the granddaughter of the man who built it.  She lives her life as lady of the manor, rarely interacting with the people of the surrounding town.  She has given the coach house to her daughter and son-in-law.  She is a professor in the local college; he is writing a biography of a poet who lived there during the artist colony days.  The couple is joined by another one, who are the offspring of the owner's second husband, and the dynamic of the two couples propel this part of the story.

Going back a generation, we learn the story of the artists who lived there making art.  There were poets and painters, dancers and sculptors, all living and loving together.  They had a good run of things for a decade or more, until the owning family decides to take the house back. 

Going back another generation, we learn the secrets of the family that built the house and the story behind the mysterious death of the woman the house was built for.  Violet has left little mark on history, except as the subject of a striking portrait and as the rumor of a ghost that haunts the house over the years.

Makkai has created a fascinating book that uses surprising connections to tie together the generations of the house.  Characters play their part on the stage and withdraw, sometimes to reappear in different guises.  The secrets of one incarnation serve as the treasure hunt for the next, as the stories are all laid bare over time.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction. 

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